The Battle of White Plains Began In Scarsdale

By Anthony F. Lazzara
Provided by the Scarsdale Historical Society

The events leading up to the Battle of White Plains in October 1776 flowed from the British defeat of Washington's troops in the Battle of Long Island that previous summer. The American commander evacuated Long Island with his army intact to fight again another day. (Estimated 14,000 men.)

Gen. Sir William Howe, British Commander-In-Chief and his tory sympathizers, had a stronghold in New York City, while patriot fervor was stronger in upstate New York. Westchester County was considered to be the neutral ground though lower Westchester was more loyalist oriented. (Estimated troop strength; 15,000 disciplined, highly trained soldiers.)

Washington had concentrated his forces in Ft. Washington and Kings Bridge and slowly moved north to White Plains along the Albany Road. The rear, brought up by Gen. Charles Lee's Virginia Division, laden by baggage and provision, started out on October 18th travelling the west side of the Bronx River and took nine days to reach White Plains. There they joined Washington's advance unit which started arriving October 21st and were fortifying Chatterton, Purdy, Merritt, Hatfield and Miller hills. Along the way, occasional skirmishes broke out across the Bronx River as the rival forces from time to time tested one another. (There is the story of Col. Rufus Putnam reconnoitering for the colonials who stopped, reportedly at Wayside Cottage to pick up intelligence on British strength and local tory symphony.)

Lord Howe landed about 4,000 men at Throg's Neck, October 12th, with the intention of encircling Washington's army and bringing the rebellion to an early end. He was met by Col. Ed Hand's crack Pennsylvania riflemen who destroyed the bridge and causeway leading from Throg's Neck to the Westchester mainland. Howe's men were isolated for six days before they re-embarked and landed at Pell's Point in Pelham Manor on October 18th.

Col. John Glover and his weakened brigade of Marblehead troops fortunately were posted in the right position, as a rearguard to Washington's northerly movement, assigned to protect the Boston and White Plains Post Roads. Glover commanded three regiments under Cols. Baldwin, Read and Shepherd. Glover placed his regiments in a succession of ambush points along the route of Howe's army. The ensuing enfilade and leapfrog ambush tactics triggered by Glover's daring headlong charge into the British and Hessian advance guard was cited later by the colonials, for training purposes, on how a small force could hold up a larger advancing troop. Casualities: Americans, 8 killed and 13 wounded, British, 11 killed and 44 wounded, A few historians have theorized that the Hessian losses, not reported, could have been as high as 800 men! Assuming this to be true, "the Battle of Pelham' could have exceeded the 500 estimated combined number of soldiers killed at the Battle of White Plains.

Howe, normally cautious and deliberative, became even more so. The main body of the British and Hessian mercenaries proceeded up North Avenue in New Rochelle. The first column, under Gen. Sir Henry Clinton, marched up Quaker Ridge Road to Weaver to Old Mamaroneck Road through East Scarsdale towards White Plains. An historic marker at Weaver and Cornell reads,

"A detachment of British troops on their way to the Battle of White Plains marched along this road and encamped near this spot on Oct. 27, 1776. Gen. Wilhelm von Knyhausen, Hessians!' The second column of Hessians marched up Mamaroneck Road to Secor Farm and bivouacked in the Heathcote area. Howe took up quarters at the Griffen House (still standing at Mamaroneck and Garden Roads in Scarsdale) on October 25th and remained until November 4th.

Many Scarsdale families, i,e., Varians, Barkers, Griffens and Cornells, of patriotic persuasion, fled as the British advanced in strength. The Secors and Tompkins, among the few exceptions, stayed to later recount for posterity their eyewitness accounts of unfolding events in Scarsdale. The Hessians, particularly in the forefront of the advance, pillaged and plundered the countryside regardless of friend or foe. (Helen Hultz reports that Hessian sabre marks can still be seen on the Wayside Cottage door where legend has it the Varians managed to hide their cow in an underground area.)

Caleb Tompkins drove the family cattle before him to safety behind Washingtons lines in White Plains. One account states that at one point he hid in a swampy area immersed up to his neck.

British movement, as previously reported, did not go unchallenged. On October 22nd, Washington dispatched Col. Haslett's Delaware Regiment and Col. Green's 1st and 3rd Virginia Regiments, 750 men in all, to harrass the right wing of Howe's army stationed in Heathcote where Col. Rogers Queen's "American" Rangers (loyalists) were encamped. Haslett's guides in a nighttime raid, ran into Roberts' pickets. Fierce hand-to-hand fighting ensued. The brief skirmish left 25 British dead (buried in an orchard near the school house that served as Rogers' headquarters). Haslett returned with 36 prisoners including John and James Angevine - whose house at 164 Mamaroneck Road still stands. Thereafter, the Queen's Rangers became ineffective and disintegrated as a fighting unit though whether as a result of this engagement, history does not make clear.

October 28th is officially listed as the opening day of the Battle of White Plains. Bugles and drums called to battle the thousands of British and Hessians in camps and bivouacs throughout the Scarsdale area. Caleb Secor, standing on his property, observed Howe's forces marching through Scarsdale's roads and byways preceded by an enforced labor battalion made up of prisoner and local patriots who cleared the roads, removed the fences and built bridges as the British advanced. All roads were military highways mixing the last of the autumnal hues with the bright British redcoats and the Hessian blues. It was the last day of Indian summer and the pageantry must have been something to behold!

Howe's battle plan called for a pincer movement in attacking Chatterton Hill (within one mile of Scarsdale). One arm of the pincer was led by Lt. Gen. DeHeister who commandered the Hessians moving westward down Mamaroneck Road to Post Road fanning out through Scarsdale - mainly in Greenacres, and into parts of Fox Meadow, possibly as far as Olmstead Road. Fenimore Road, no more than a cowpath leading towards Hartsdale/Greenburgh, was the direction the Hessians were taking.

Washington directed Maj. Gen. Joseph Spencer and 2,500 troops to block the Hessians from approaching Chatterton Hill. The colonials moved across the Bronx River and engaged the Hessians throwing them back with their musket volleys using all of Greenacres as a battlefield.

The tide of battle changed abruptly as the Hessians' Col. Ralle and his mounted dragons rode onto the fields of Greenacres, and together with the superior number of their fellow Hessians routed the continentals who broke and ran to the other side of the Bronx River with the Hessians in hot pursuit at the ford (1/4 mile from Scarsdale) and taking refuge behind the defense fortification at Chatterton Hill. So went the first day of the battle of White Plains.

The casualties in Scarsdale were 22 killed, 24 wounded and 1 missing. Mementos from the battle have been found in Greenacrcs from time to time.

The British eventually pushed the colonials off of Chatterton Hill but paid a price in doing so. After the redcoats were thrown back following a couple of uphill charges, Col. Ralle and his calvary, once again, came onto the scene and carried the day for the Biritsh.

Howe's procrastination and the heavy rains that subsequently fell turned what might have been a big British victory into a defeat of sorts. On November 4th, Howe inexplicably turned his forces south to move onto a 2,000 man continental detachment holding Ft. Washington.

Washington's army once again escaped intact heading north, eventually across the Hudson River, and subsequently scored pivotal victories at Princeton and Trenton (New Jersey) where Col. Ralle was killed with many of his fellow Hessians who met the same fate or were taken prisoner.

Thus was Washington to avenge the opening day battle in Scarsdale where Col. Ralle and the Hessians carried the day!

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